Carolina Panthers: Like it or not (and somehow there are fans who don't), it's Cam Newton's league right now, everyone else is just playing in it. There are two players in the league right now who seem like they're having a blast every minute they're on the field; one is Newton and the other is Rob Gronkowski. Newton's attitude is contagious to his entire team, and they have rallied around his leadership, they love their fans, and they have beaten the hell out of opponents, rolling to a 17-1 record so far.
Like Tom Brady, one of the most impressive things about Newton is how well he's done with, to be frank, a less-than-ideal crew of receivers in his spread-option offense. Not that they're awful, but there's just no Calvin Johnson-type stud, no thousand-yard WR in the crew. Still, veterans Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery make plays at the right times, rookie Devin Funchess has been steadily improving in the post-season, and tight end Greg Olsen (who leads the team by far in receptions and yards) is a reliable outlet for Newton on any and every given play.
But the Panthers' real strength is their shutdown defense. Safety Kurt Coleman tied for the league lead in interceptions this seasons, and he and cornerback Josh Norman are the cornerstones of one of the league's best secondaries. Linebacker Luke Kuechly had a game-changing pick-six against Carson Palmer in the NFC Championship Game; after that play, Palmer wasn't the same, and the Cardinals ended up turning over the ball seven times in a 49-15 blowout.
Denver Broncos: It's hard not to feel bad for Peyton Manning. After a barnstorming 2013 year in which he set season records for touchdowns and passing yards, Manning had his ass unceremoniously handed to him literally from the first play of Super Bowl 48, which turned out to be a record-setting blowout. During the 2015 season, Manning set records for career yards and touchdowns, which are unlikely to be broken in the near future.
And yet despite Denver's buzzsaw defense, featuring all-world linebackers Demarcus Ware and Von Miller, the outcome looks much the same, this time because the Donks' offense isn't quite what it was a couple years ago. Receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryious Thomas are better on paper, but Thomas has had key drops all season. Ware, Miller, and CB Aqib Talib are likely to make some plays on defense, but ultimately, the Panthers have much more talent and momentum on both sides of the ball.
The one weakness Carolina has shown repeatedly all season is a knack for building formidable leads in the first half, only to let their opponents come back in the second half. In fact, the Panthers had the worst second-half stats of just about any team in the entire league. They played to this pattern in the divisional playoffs against Seattle, leading 31-0 late n the second quarter before being forced to hold off the Seahags late in the game, ultimately winning 31-24. But the Panthers' merciless squashing of the upstart Cardinals showed that they were aware of that trend, and were finally ready to shut it down. Denver will be the unfortunate recipient of the Panthers' renewed efforts.
Final Score: Panthers 38, Broncos 17